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Team Rubicon disaster relief training camp springs into action in Prince George

Six-day international gathering is first of its kind in Canada

When an unprecedented heat dome scorched most of British Columbia last year in late June, turning the village of Lytton into a raging inferno that turned buildings to ash, Brett Simms and Team Rubicon Lower Mainland were among the first disaster relief teams there for the recovery.

Sifting through the wreckage of homes that had stood for decades, Simms and his team found cherished family possessions that survived the heat and flames among the bodies of animals that had perished.  

“It was very sad,” said the 50-year-old Simms. “The town was razed, it was mind-boggling to see it, about 85 to 90 percent of the homes were destroyed. There was almost nothing left.

“We helped people recover valuable, family heirlooms, old artifacts, arrowheads. There a lot of First Nations people in the area and finding pet remains was very important to the team as well as the people, helping to find those moments to create some closure.”

Simms works as a computer graphics designer in North Vancouver. He has a background in disaster relief that dates back seven years and for the past four years he’s been an administrator for Team Rubicon Lower Mainland. He’s seen enough disasters to know why Team Rubicon is needed as a buffer between government authorities/first responders and the residents whose lives have been turned upside-down.

“A huge component is most of the emergency response is there for that first critical moment trying to do lifesaving work,” said Simms. “Having somebody that can step in and help with the huge problems that come after that, it’s a bit of a gap.

“You’re not going to get a lot of help from municipalities coming to muck out your basement (after a flood). That’s going to be on you as a homeowner and when you’re underinsured or not insured or if you’re a senior, it can be a hopeless situation. So having people who are willing to get in there and do the dirty work and the hard work nobody else wants to do but has to be done so people can get back to life, we try to be there to help them on their worst day in ways that other people don’t.”

For the next six days, Simms will be in Prince George among 35 volunteers who have signed up for Team Rubicon’s first-ever disaster training conference on Canadian soil. Using facilities at Ness Lake Bible Camo and the Prince George Airport, the camp will teach chainsaw proficiency, fire suppression, first aid, mental health, and disaster site assessment to learn how to allocate resources. The 35 participants come from as far away as Nova Scotia, Ontario, Texas and Alaska.

Jacob Nilz of Fort Worth, Texas is a full-time trainer for Team Rubicon who conducts training camps throughout the United States, while also attending to disasters in the country. He’s assisted in regional relief operations for tornadoes and hurricanes and has leaned on his skills as a sawyer to assist in wildfire and mudslide missions on the west coast.

“This is my first time in Canada and I’m excited because this our first large-scale disaster training camp in Canada and our end goal is this will be a big capacity-builder,” said Nilz. “Our goal is to turn all these people into force multipliers. Our hope is that the people who go through these introductory and advanced courses here are going to go on to go through our instructor training and we’ll start to see the force multiply. It’s all about engaging the community and building relationships and training those advanced skills to how you respond to a disaster.”

Nilz was a tree specialist trained in the use of chainsaw when a tornado touched down 20 minutes from his home in Fort Worth. He showed up with his saw to help in the cleanup operation and that was the start of his six years as a Team Rubicon volunteer before it became his full-time occupation in 2020. He met his wife Maggie teaching a chainsaw course.

Civilians from all walks of life blend with ex-military troops and first responders as “gray shirts” on Team Rubicon and there are as many women involved as there are men. During the pandemic last year, Kathy Carlson temporarily left her job as executive director of the Central B.C. Railway and Forestry Museum in Prince George to become a Team Rubicon volunteer helping COVID patients in an Ontario hotel.

“One of the things I think is really important is giving back to the community and being part of Team Rubicon allows for that to happen on whatever scale you can imagine,” said Carlson. “For me it’s getting stuff done, learning a new skill set you never even dreamed you would learn. I had the opportunity to do the chainsaw course and it feels so empowering.”  

Eric Depenau grew up in Quesnel with a chainsaw in his hands and put those skills to work in the 10 years he spent with the B.C Wildfire Service. After his move to Prince George he joined the Rocky Mountain Rangers military reserves and also became a volunteer with Team Rubicon, where his training in emergency operations began in earnest. He’s seen his share of burnt forests and lost properties in wildfires but nothing could prepare Depenau and Team Rubicon Prince George administrator Cristian Silva for what they saw in the two weeks they spent in the Bahamas on a relief mission in September 2019, after Category 5 Hurricane Dorian brought wind speeds of 298 kilometres per hour to the island nation, leaving 200 dead and damage in the billions.

“The level of devastation, unless you’ve been to a disaster like that, is incomprehensible - every building was damaged, there wasn’t an untouched structure,” said the 28-year-old Depenau, deputy administrator for the Prince George division. “Something like 13,000 homes were impacted and there was not a single commercial service running, no storefront, so going in becoming self-sustaining, trying to help folks gain access to streets, you can imagine the blowdown of buildings blown across highways. We learned a little bit through our civilian work and we got to apply it and were thankful to do that.”

Team Rubicon was started in the United States by a group of marines who got involved in the relief efforts in the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti. The team put down its Canadian roots during the Fort McMurray wildfire in May 2016 that destroyed 2,400 homes and forced 80,000 residents to evacuate.

Team Rubicon Prince George formed in 2017 and the local division is always on the lookout for more people to bolster its ranks. In the wake of climate change and an increasing likelihood of fires, floods and landslides, the need for a northern B.C-based volunteer force trained in disaster relief to help people pick up the pieces has never been greater.

“I like to think that when disaster happens folks are always keen to help their neighbours,” said Depenau. “They want to know how they can be involved, and joining Team Rubicon today, while we’re not in an emergency, getting yourself up to speed with conferences like this and being ready to help your neighbour when the time comes is a pretty decent thing to do.”  

Team Rubicon is now based at the airport in a building it shares with Prince George Search and Rescue. For more information about how to join Team Rubicon, go to